Op/Ed: Getting Real About Backstretch Work


You've heard it before, when trainers talk about the difficulty of hiring non-immigrant barn workers: “No one in America wants this job.” That's what one trainer told the audience during a panel on immigration at the Albany Law School's Saratoga Institute on Equine, Racing, and Gaming Law Conference on August 8, as he recounted how his attempts to hire U.S. citizens often end with people quitting because the work is strenuous and possibly dangerous. The message is that non-immigrant workers are too lazy, too soft. Framing the problem as one of unwilling employees, though, lets owners and trainers off the hook for labor practices and working conditions on the backside.

In 2004 and 2005, I worked as a hotwalker, first at Suffolk Downs, then at Saratoga. I loved the work, which I began without having any horse-handling experience. It was challenging, and as my skills grew and training as a groom was added to the job, it became more rewarding. I appreciated that it was physical without being mindless, routine without being dull, and I liked being part of a team coaxing these animals into giving their best on track.

I wasn't a typical stablehand, in a few ways–I was a citizen, my work status never in question, spoke English as a first language, was college-educated. I'd been working in publishing. But I was paid $250 a week, like other hotwalkers, and at Saratoga, I lived in the same dorm as other backside workers.

That summer at Saratoga, I worked six weeks straight without a day off. Work began at 4:30 a.m., with scrubbing and refilling water buckets, and continued until 10:30 or 11:00 a.m., whenever the last horse was tucked away, the shedrow straightened, and the lunch feed mixed. That was first shift. Most days, second shift began at 11:30 a.m., or sometimes in the early afternoon–it depended on whether the barn had a horse in a race (and which race). If we were in a late race, work could extend into early evening.

The pace rarely let up, and I leaned into the opportunity–when I had afternoons off from my barn, I'd pick up work from others, accompanying horses to the detention barn and cooling out horses after a race for $30 cash. There was always something that needed to be done, and I welcomed the chance to handle all kinds of horses, peek into barns across the backside, and talk to grooms and assistant trainers and exercise riders about how they came to racing and why they chose to make their life in it.

And then, when Saratoga ended, I went home. After 15 months of being a licensed stablehand, after getting to put my hands on $5,000 claimers and million-dollar earners, I left the backside. It wasn't because of the work–the work was hard, and that was fine. It was the hardness of everything else. It was sharing a 9×12 room with two other women, and living off the bad food available at the track kitchen–the nearest grocery store was more than a mile away, and there was no place to store fresh food or prepare a meal in the dorms. It was the isolation, the feeling of being cut off from family and friends and life outside the track when days could pass before I had enough time to leave the grounds and get into town.

It was also the sexual harassment, the near daily experience of hearing men say obscene things to me as I worked. The rules of the backstretch are simple–be tough, don't complain. And I didn't. Who would I have said anything to, even if I'd wanted? I accepted the leering and lewdness as part of the culture, as just something I had to put up with to work with horses.

In so many ways, the barn felt like a workplace from another time, and I worked for well-respected trainers with committed crews. My Saratoga coworkers were skilled, dedicated, and proud of their work. That was the good. The bad was that there was no time-keeping. No breaks. Little protection against injury. Bonuses for wins but no safety nets. Nothing in my experience suggested the conditions I worked in were unusual–from observing how other barns were managed and talking to other workers, it seemed that was just how things were done in most outfits. And while enforcement of labor laws has stepped up in some jurisdictions, such as New York, in the years since I was on the backside, too many workers remain vulnerable to exploitation across the industry.

Owners and trainers will say that the economics of running a stable are brutal, and I don't doubt it. This is an expensive business, and it runs on paying people little money and offering them few benefits. It wants labor that's hungry for 10-, 12-, 14-hour days, that will accept the physical toll of the work and wage precarity. It calls this hunger “passion.” The demands made of workers aren't specific to U.S. racing–trainers in other countries use the same rationale as American trainers caught up in crackdowns often do–that this is an agricultural business, exempt from the standards to which other workplaces are expected to hew.

I understood the deal when I worked on the backside. Other workers get it, and it's no wonder that if they have another choice and no great love for horses, they go elsewhere. It's time for trainers to stop using the excuse that they have to hire immigrant labor because non-immigrant workers balk at some hard work. Own what kind of labor you want to hire, and what working conditions you believe people should accept. Own how you turn people's circumstances and sense of vocation to your advantage. The fault is not with workers rejecting your terms–it is your terms.

Jessica Chapel is a digital producer and editor in Boston. She began writing about Thoroughbred racing in 2004. Since 2006, she has worked with racing publications and organizations on a variety of digital media initiatives.

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